At a time when the hottest clothing designs often show off more skin than fabric, the concept of Orthodox fashion might seem like an oxymoron.
But the crowd of about 100 women who gathered for a student showing of modest dress at the Gershman Y on Nov. 17 tried to prove otherwise.
The "Inner Expressions" women-only fashion show was organized by the Chabad House for Students of the Arts, with the goal of challenging students "both artistically and spiritually," said Reuvena Grodnitzky, who moved to Center City last fall to open the house with her husband, Rabbi Daniel Grodnitzky.
It also provided "a really great opportunity to include and unite these different groups of students who usually don't interact to focus on a really inspiring topic and something people don't really hear so much about, which is the Jewish woman and her beauty," Grodnitzky said.
The show featured four designers, nine models, three jewelry makers and a dancer -- all Jewish (but not Orthodox) students from Drexel University, University of the Arts, Moore College of Art & Design, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Temple University's Tyler School of Art. Students were also employed to design programs, operate the lighting and take photos.
"It really defines what the young Jewish woman should wear who is into fashion," said one of the designers, Shelby Kay, 19, a sophomore at University of the Arts.
Before the presentation began, audience members browsed through jewelry on display and mingled around a long table piled high with Grodnitzky's homemade desserts and a chocolate fountain.
Temple student Jennie Nack sports a Shelby Kay original, while Shira Nusbaum (below) shows off a bridesmaid dress her sister designed.
"It's just so beautiful to see all these Jewish women and girls here celebrating being Jewish women," Dr. Tzipi Glick, an Orthodox pathologist and fashion afficionado, said in her opening address before emceeing the show.
Seated around circular tables decorated with purple tablecloths and bowls of candied nuts, the onlookers craned their necks, some scrambling to snap photos as the models breezed by.
"Ooh, that's so pretty," one woman exclaimed.
"The models are so beautiful that everything looks good anyway," another woman murmured.
Shoshi Cohen and her daughter Shira, who attended the show along with 40 classmates from Kohelet Yeshiva High School, said it was nice to see clothing they could actually wear.
It wasn't designed by men who "make everything for flat-chested, skinny women," said Cohen, of Wynnewood. "We don't fit into this."
At first, Grodnitzky said, the four designers she contacted several months ago were apprehensive, saying they didn't have modest-enough pieces nor did they have time to sew brand new clothes for an extracurricular event. As they talked more about it, she said, they realized they could easily adapt or modify items they'd already made by swapping pants for a knee-length skirt, for example, or putting a shell underneath a dress to cover the elbows and collarbone.
"It's a lot harder than you think to have everything very conservative but still be at the top of the fashion scene," said Morag Gilad, 24, a senior at the Art Institute, adding that she'd taken a "special topics" class last semester, but "this was not one of the projects!"
Ultimately, said Moore senior Marissa Kaye, the task of "Orthodox-izing" her collection proved that conservative doesn't have to mean frumpy.
"You don't have to be completely naked to show off your figure," Kaye, 22, said, adding that she usually gets complimented on the outfits she puts together when she attends Chabad services. "You can be respectful and suggestive."
An additional non-student model, Shira Nusbaum, 25, a nurse from Cherry Hill, N.J., who wore a yellow bridesmaid dress that her sister Ora had designed for her to wear in a wedding, said she thought the show was a wonderful idea.
"Society unfortunately is teaching girls that it's a bad thing to cover themselves up," said Nusbaum. "They don't realize you actually get more respect when you don't show your outer side. You can still be beautiful and wear all this beautiful clothing and not have to flaunt your body."
Though she's not strict about dressing modestly, Drexel student designer Ora Nusbaum, 23, said she's noticed a difference in how men talk to her when she's more covered.
"They get to know me on a different level," she said.
It's ironic, she continued, because women "don't want people to look at us as objects. We want people to look at a different level of us," yet fashion trends fly in the face of that effort.
For Grodnitzky, the purpose of the show was not to emphasize the guidelines of Jewish law but to give young women "a sense of pride and dignity in both their appearance and identity."
Fashion should be more than just clothing, she said, it should be "an enhancement of who we are inside" that reveals an "aspect of the soul."